When I was in my early twenties, a few years after becoming agnostic, I read C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ for the first time. More accurately, I read part of it; I got bogged down somewhere in Book 2 and never finished it. However, the part I read contained Lewis’s famous moral argument for God, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never previously come across. I have no idea why that was the case – it’s a very famous argument and I’d spent the past several years reading everything I could find in several major libraries on the ‘Why you should/shouldn’t believe in God’ question, so it seems unlikely that I’d managed to miss it completely. Maybe I’d read a poorly-written summary and forgotten it. In any case, there I was, several years into my search for answers on the God question, finally looking at a completely new approach to the subject.
What’s more, it seemed to be the best argument I’d seen so far. With hindsight I think this was not so much a tribute to the power of the argument as an indictment of every other argument I’d ever read on the subject; for the first time that I could remember, my reaction to a pro-theism argument wasn’t “Hold on, surely [obvious objection]?” but “Wow. There’s something to this. I need to think about it.” So I did. I really wanted to know whether Lewis did indeed have something there; whether this actually was the elusive proof of God’s existence for which I’d been searching for so long.
Since I’m here on an atheist blogging platform today, it will probably not be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that it wasn’t. As it’s an important apologetic argument, it seems worth writing about why it wasn’t; as it’s going to be raised in the next chapter of CCCFK, I thought it would be worth doing that now. This (in two parts, because it ended up being longer than I’d anticipated) is my response to Lewis’s moral argument.
First, a quick summary of the argument itself, for anyone who hasn’t heard it. While Lewis put it better than I will, it boils down to this:
- We all share and agree on, to at least some extent, a moral code (i.e., a sense of certain actions being right or wrong) and a tacit understanding that other people with whom we interact in normal life are going to share that code with us. (Hence, statements like “You can’t do that, it’s not fair” are appeals to that code; we anticipate that the person we talk to will understand what we mean by ‘fairness’ even if they disagree with our assessment of their action according to that ‘fairness’ standard).
- This innate shared understanding is over and above what societal customs could account for (while some of it does vary with society, it’s normally accepted that rules like not killing people or taking their stuff are an actual moral code and not just some kind of weird societal convention).
- The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.
I was impressed. Not only was this an intriguing new line of argument that was challenging me and making me think, but it also made a really nice change for an apologist to be arguing from the premise that unbelievers such as myself did know right from wrong, rather than the erroneous belief that we didn’t. Hah! Take that, all you apologists who’ve tried to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea about morality.
So, food for thought there. Was Lewis right in his belief that only a deity of some kind could have given us this universally shared moral code?
There was, I realised, a big problem with that hypothesis; our shared moral code isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t a list of weird incomprehensible rules with no explanation. Our moral code (at least, the parts of it that we could fairly describe as universal) is, in fact, based on something very obvious; the understanding that other people feel pain and pleasure just as we ourselves do, and that these feelings are important to other people just as they are to us.
We know what it’s like to want to avoid pain, to want to be treated fairly, to want to have the option of pursuing those things that give us happiness and satisfaction in life. We extrapolate from these desires plus our ability to understand that others share these feelings. From this, we grasp that it’s good to avoid inflicting pain on others, to treat all people fairly, to make sure that other people have the option of pursuing happiness and satisfaction in their lives. We understand that it’s wrong to kill or steal or harm people or judge people unjustly, because we get that these things hurt other people just as they would hurt us.
(Having realised this, I also realised that one of the huge flaws in this underlying ability was our tendency to apply this understanding only to those we considered to be part of our in-group. Tribe, country, race, religion, gender, sexuality… throughout history, the natural human tendency has been to divide others mentally into Us and Them, and to apply this do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle only to the Us group. The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere. I’d never thought of it in quite this way before; I was quite intrigued by the concept.)
This all seemed like an excellent working hypothesis to explain the universal moral code that Lewis believed could only be explained by the existence of some kind of deity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘working hypothesis’ at the time, but I did understand that my idea was something I needed to examine carefully for flaws before reaching any final conclusion as to whether Lewis or I was right about this one.